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What's the Solution For Cape Hatteras National Seashore?


What's the correct image of ORV use at Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the top photo, taken by A. Pitt, or the bottom photo used by the Southern Environmental Law Center?

The spit of sand that buffers the North Carolina coast from the worst the Atlantic Ocean can toss at it carries an array of contentious issues that seemingly have no easy answers. Foremost among the issues at Cape Hatteras National Seashore these days is the use of off-road vehicles to negotiate beaches that are either far from parking lots or which are just far enough from those lots to make it difficult to carry all your gear for a weekend fishing trip.

Cape Hatteras, authorized as America's first national seashore in 1937 but not actually established until 1953, is a beach lover's jewel. The heart of North Carolina's Outer Banks, the cape offers some of the best beaches in the country, is renowned for its surf fishing, has some of the East Coast's best waves for surfing, and has a decided tinge of wildness that is a welcome respite from the Mid-Atlantic's metropolitan areas.

Off-road vehicles long have been allowed on the national seashore. Unfortunately, the seashore hasn't had a formal off-road management plan in place, and that's why discussions centered on Cape Hatteras often grow heated.

The hot button is the fact that the cape's beaches and dunes attract wildlife: of late much has been made of the nesting shorebirds and sea turtles and whether off-road vehicles are impacting them. The divisions over that question are well-defined. Perhaps no topic other than guns in the parks illicits as many comments to the Traveler as ORVs and Cape Hatteras.

Are ORVs out of control, as the lower photo used by the Southern Environmental Law Center might suggest, or does the top photo provided by A. Pitt better capture ORV use on the cape?

Mr. Pitt has been visiting the cape since 1972 and owns land in Frisco that provides him and his family a welcome escape from their Richmond, Virginia, home. He's well-versed on the ongoing dispute surrounding ORVs on Cape Hatteras; since April he's written hundreds of members of Congress to try provide an ORVer's viewpoint of the ongoing debate and to question points raised by Defenders of Wildlife and the National Audubon Society, the two groups who, through the Southern Environmental Law Center, sued the National Park Service for its failure to develop an ORV management plan for the national seashore.

The lawsuit was settled earlier this year when all involved signed a consent decree that was designed to provide short-term management of ORV and pedestrian traffic in shorebird and sea turtle habitat while a long-term plan is developed. Unfortunately, not everyone is thrilled with the consent decree's provisions. Anglers and families that long have used ORVs to reach their favorite spots on the seashore complain that the decree is too restrictive and over-reaching.

What's important for all to remember is not only that ORVs long have been permitted at the national seashore and more than likely will continue to be allowed access in some fashion, but also that there is wildlife habitat on the seashore that needs protection because it is utilized by species protected under the Endangered Species Act.

"I have a vested interest in the area," says Mr Pitt. "It's truly my paradise! Most of the folks who speak out on this issue are fishermen/women. I speak out for beach access for any reason, whether it be fishing, surfing, or just sitting there playing Parcheesi.

" ... I support BOTH species protection AND ORV access, as do most beach users in this area," adds Mr. Pitt. "I truly believe that they can both be attained, if the 'eco' groups will indeed negotiate in good faith."

To some, "ORV" is a pejorative, a word that equates with four-wheelers charging willy-nilly across the landscape. Is that the case at Cape Hatteras, or are the "ORVs" there more likely to be pickup trucks and SUVs their owners use to reach beaches that otherwise would take walks ranging from perhaps a half-mile to nearly 5 miles to reach?

As the attached map shows, there are quite a few ORV and pedestrian restrictions between May 15 and September 15 to protect shorebird and sea turtle nesting habitat. Are those restrictions excessive? There certainly are hard opinions on both sides of that question.

While that question will continue to generate heated comments, let's hope all those involved will arrive at an acceptable solution through the National Park Service's long-term ORV management plan and not insist on a legislated solution from Washington.


James R. Pepper et al,

I gave some thought to the question how the brand-new ATV machines became 'customary & traditional' in the Alaska land-claims process. Speculatively, it would be reasonable that they were ultimately classified as just the most recent 'model' of Off-Road Vehicle, ORV. Ex-military jeeps were prevalent following World War II, and in the pre-war era tracked vehicles - often bulldozers - were the dominant vehicle in the backcountry. Many if not most 'trails' in Alaska were originally created by bulldozers driving cross-country and blading off a rough cat-road as they went. Jeeps and other smaller/lighter machines then followed, and kept the 'roadway' clear.

I could imagine that the argument which prevailed could be, that it is spurious to reexamine each new version or model of a machine used for the same purpose & function. For example, are SUVs on Cape Hatteras any different than Model T Fords lined up on the sand in the 1920s? Or even the horse & buggy of the 1800s?

Functionally, an ATV is just a jeep, etc., but smaller and with a much-lighter 'footprint' on the landscape. ATVs can also be tracked vehicles, corresponding to bulldozers.

I will look for solid documentation of this possible treatment of the ATV tonight & over the weekend.

James R. Pepper,

I admire & respect your participation in the great Land Claims Settlement era. It was more historic than many yet realize, and it still continues to unfold.

The Senator who dismissed that well-off people (with airplanes) were appropriate participants in subsistence illustrates another public misconception, and a possible policy-shift in official handling of the subsistence community. An active effort by the State now seeks to dissuade that subsistence is a form of rural welfare. While plenty of individuals involved with subsistence are impoverished, others are quite well-off, and in particular households which may contain low-income persons, combine to provide high-function homes with better-than-typical resources (communications, health, income, transportation, nutrition, education, entertainment, etc).

That is, subsistence is not about 'subsisting' on a meager or marginal plane, but rather is just another pattern of living, particularly well-suited to isolated rural & remote settings. It is in the State's interest, that the people in the hinterlands form competent communities which can take care of themselves, rather than 'subsist' as dysfunctional liabilities. It is now fairly common and certainly normal for reasonably successful rural subsistence participants to own airplanes (and, I think, always was).

Yes, for sure, dog-teams maintained 'on the land' make a far greater impact on the habitat than machine-based transportation. I do not know the circumstances under which the status of ATVs transformed from recent introduction (as you accurately note, they were very new at the beginning of the ANILCA process) to officially 'customary & traditional', but speculatively the dog-argument could have played a role.

I am aware that other fundamental shifts in the enactment of the ANILCA and ANCSA Acts have transpired, beginning at the beginning and proceeding at various points through the years.

In the early years, I did not expect subsistence to survive. It looked like a ruse or ploy, which would fritter away into nothingness. For some time now, it has been evident that I was quite mistaken.

... Again, I believe that these exotic-seeming events & precedents unfolding in seemingly far away & irrelevant Alaska are very much material & meaningful, in the future of policies pertaining to Parks and other public assets throughout the Conterminous States.

Access to inholding or private property is a Fifth Amendment right, and should not be confused with access for subsistence.

Thank you, Ted Clayton, for your documentation on the current policy on subsistence access. I have been away from Alaska for quite a while, and believe me it was a settled issue then that ATV's were not "customary and traditional" access.

I was also involved in the development of the original legislation, and although snowmachines were specifically referenced for subsistence and other access, ATVs and aircraft were not contemplated as subsistence access. My opinion is that if authorities or DOI solicitors have reconceived the legislation to permit ATVs, it is a misreading and abuse of the original purpose of the law. However, it appears from your well-documented examples that the authorities have folded to this.

Again, in Gates of the Arctic, the ATVs were first introduced in the 1970's, becoming common only by 1978 or so, or within a year or so of the Gates being added to the NP System (Dec 1978). These were 8-wheeled vehicles. They opened up hunting areas and changed hunting seasons, even changing the mix of animals hunted. None of this was part of any "custom" or "tradition."

I do remember discussions after the establishment of Wrangels about the use of tracked or 4-wheeled drive vehicles as customary and traditional, but it was firmly rejected at the time. Customary and traditional of course, was not meant to relate to mining access, sporting access or access to private property. "Prior use" of these vehicles for these purposes was not the same thing as "customary and traditional" as a cultural expression and part of traditional subsistence in Wrangels or any where else. But the idea that such prior use was customary and traditional was explicitly rejected at that time. I am talking about the mid-'80's.

During the development of the Legislation, subsistence advocates argued that with the technology in common use at that time would not compromise the relatively pristine character of the Alaskan parks because the subsistence hunting would just be replicating the traditional practice with no new impacts. Snowmachines could be considered to have less impact in some respect than dog teams, because hunting was actually reduced because you did not need to feed the dogs. We did have some documented abuses with repeating rifles, but for the most part rifles also would not change the kind of hunting, meaning the species hunted, the normal season and the take. I remember a conversation when someone argued that aircraft should also be permitted for the same reason (that potential aircraft could have less physical impact than truly traditional means of access, and a key Senator finally erupted and would hear none of it. He said: "I know we are talking about culture here, and a mixed economy, which I accept, but no one who can afford to fly in to hunt is a subsistence hunter. That is commercial or sport hunting, period." the same was considered to be true for jeeps or tractors, the ATVs common in Alaska at the time.

I stand corrected by Ted Clayton, although I am not impressed by the administration by park or central office managers for evading their responsibility in the way he has demonstrated. This was never the intent of the "customary and traditional" subsistence access language in the Alaska lands act.

James R. Pepper,

Thank you for the opportunity to give a more detailed treatment of subsistence practices in Alaska Parks, and other lands.

The use of ATVs (and other motor-driven vehicles) in Alaska Parks by those who hold subsistence rights is widespread (and in some Parks, by recreational users as well), fully authorized ... but also carefully regulated. They are using the machines for specific purposes: they are not permitted everywhere, nor for 'whatever' may strike their fancy. Some places & contexts are off-limits. There are resources & habitats that can't withstand vehicle-usage, and are withdrawn, while in some settings, ATV-movement may be at the discretion of the user. Most commonly, though, ATVs are used on specific trails, and moving off the trail is avoided, to reduce impact.

On the Wrangell-St. Elias Park's All Terrain Vehicles page, we see:

"Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve was established under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) in December 1980. In abidance with ANILCA, Wrangell-St. Elias provides reasonable and feasible access to inholders, subsistence, and recreational users in the park. The most common means of access is by ATV or all-terrain vehicle." (underscore added)

Likewise in the Gates of the Arctic terrain around Anuktuvuk Pass, locals are not free to use ATVs for hill-climbing recreation on the scree-slopes, or other 'free-wheeling' indulgences, and some areas are closed to machines. They generally keep to established paths. Often there is a seasonal consideration: places that can be damaged in the summer, may be open in the winter.

The matter of the responsibilities of ATV-users also raises related issues.

Consistently, about 60% of the subsistence has been fish, in early times as today. In many areas, the main fish has been salmon, but in Alaska as elsewhere, salmon-runs have been down. If wildlife managers find that a run is dropping below safe usage levels, then that resource is withdrawn from subsistence until it rebounds. Similar controls apply to big-game and fur animals. Subsistence users are not permitted to harm the resource, just because they qualify under subsistence provisions.

The main test in specifying subsistence activities, is that they have been "customary & traditional", and ATVs (as well as numerous other machines) are allowed on that basis.

There has been some abuse, misuse, and controversy, but subsistence & access use of ATVs (and in some settings by Park visitors - tourists) is solidly established in Alaska Nat'l Parks.

Ted Clayton is explicitly WRONG about ATV's in Alaska.

ATV's ARE NOT considered "customary and traditional" vehicles. The village of Anaktuvuk Pass tried to maintain that their '70's-era ATVs were "customary and traditional", but instead had to trade land with Gates of the Arctic National Park so that the park could protect undamaged tundra valleys and the Nunamiut people of the village could continue to use ATVs. The issue was only provoked because Sec. James Watt unwisely acquired the Native-owned land right around the village to add them to the Park as a cover to permit him to trade away Arctic Wildlife Refuge subsurface land to permit Watt and an oil company to permit a pro-oil development Native Corporation to be able get proprietary oil exploration info within the Refuge. It was a prelude to opening up the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, and Gates of the Arctic park and the people of Anaktuvuk Pass paid the price. The Natives immediately asserted they had "customary and traditional" rights to drive 8-wheeled vehicles on their former lands, as well as the rest of the park. You could clearly distinguish the recent damage from the ATVs from the undamaged areas. Clearly, there was nothing "customary" or "traditional" about it. However, the brilliant argument was uncorked that the Nunamiut people have always been adaptable and creative in the pursuit of the subsistence way of life, therefore, new technology is "customary and traditional."

It did not work. ATV's are not and never were considered to be "customary and traditional" in the national park laws of Alaska.

Folks I messed up my grammer, so I edited it. It was originally posted earlier in the day before the posting above.




Your quote:

"As my time as a Senior volunteer at a National Park has taught me "Mitigation funding" is something you come to both love and hate, and thanks to the current adminstration the NPS's increasing reliance on it has become a serious problem."

Can you please explain what you know about this situation? That's new terminology to me, and I would like to know how it might come into play in the CHNSRA issue. Thanks in advance!

Mitigation funding is when a park get funding from a corporation to offset any environmently or any other damage they have done to a park because of their actions. For example, an oil company drills or drilled for oil near a National Park and to help Mitigate their past or future damage give the park MILLIONS OF DOLLARS. Now just think how this how this can become a problem.


The "Lip Rippers" moniker is my personal favorite too. Classic! I have seen it in print on other sites, believe it or not. This thread contained some similar sentiments, as I know you are aware.

Your albiet distant view is quite accurate, I must say. I would also agree with your "simplistic" comment, but I think that the posts on this thread by those of us painfully close to the issue have helped to clarify the situation, and show just how hard an area this is to manage due simply to geography.

Thanks for your sympathies for our cause. I believe as you do, that this battle is far from over. I do not wish to see it tied up in courts, but would rather see a more democratic process be allowed to settle this affair. We’ll just have to wait and see on that, while breathing normally. Good advice there!


Thanks for the excellent description of “Mitigation Funding”. I’ve never heard of it coming into play in the NPS areas that I frequent. I can clearly see how that could indeed become a huge problem. Kind of sounds like an area could be “bought/hushed up”, for the right amount of money.

In the CHNSRA, I’m afraid it’s all about “Litigation” funding these days….

Thanks again to you all for your insights. I think we’ve all learned something from this thread. I know I certainly have.


"Fish lip rippers"? Now I've heard everything........that's the best someone could invent? Sounds more cartoon than derogatory.

Closing the beaches is an obvious attempt, in my view, of headline grabbing and stirring up emotion amongst the "all access" side of the debate, a thinly shrouded and poorly conceived notion that by, in essence, pissing off the locals and completely trashing the local economy, movement can be expedited on one side or the other. This, I grant you, is the view from a comfortable distance, and may or may not be totally accurate. But since I have no vested interest in the program, per se, maybe I'm being overly simplistic in my assessment of the situation. But I admit to taking umbrage with ANY "political football" that people try and simplify into the "Enviros vs. Human Progress" issue. Too convenient, too simplistic, and WAY too inaccurate in ALL cases. All emotion and limited substance is a poor way for EITHER side to affect the desired result. I, in all honestly, wish you well with achieving a resolution that both /all parties deem acceptable. But I certainly wouldn't be holding my breath if I was on EITHER side of this debate. I smell a protracted legal battle about to ensue. As if what's currently happening isn't protracted enough!

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